The most common “alternative” type of class is fully online—more than 33 percent of college students have taken at least one online course. Through the last decade, online classes have shaken the stigma of being only the purview of diploma mills and other shaky enterprises. Now, due to advances in technology, they are just as robust as classroom instruction. And they really aren’t all that new—they are really a continuation of the University of Minnesota’s pioneering work in the original “distance” programs, correspondence courses.

Building an Online Presence

Master in Business Taxation (MBT) Director Paul Gutterman says his program has been looking into offering online classes periodically for at least 15 years, but nothing much came from it. However, in the past few years, two major changes have taken place.

“First, the technology to deliver online education has evolved tremendously,” he says. “There are so many new and different tools to deliver material in so many ways. There is almost nothing that you can do in the classroom that you can’t duplicate online now.”

The second major change is that the Carlson School now has the experience and infrastructure to support online education. “The school now has a team of knowledgeable instructional course designers to help instructors envision and develop their online courses,” Gutterman says. “They start working with the instructor nine to 12 months before the course will be offered. And, the school has invested in both the technology and support necessary to build these courses.”

The target market for online instruction can be broken down into three groups. The first are those in the area who are interested in taking classes but don’t because they don’t want to come to campus. The second group are those outside the immediate area who have an even greater obstacle coming to campus. “We’ve had numerous students from Duluth, Alexandria, St. Cloud, and Eau Claire who commute one evening a week for three years or more to complete our program,” Gutterman says.

The last group are those outside the state. In the case of MBT, there are a limited number of graduate tax programs nationally and even fewer with the program’s reputation. Most of MBT’s target student body has no access to a live classroom program.

When it comes to designing a class for online instruction, Gutterman says there are many misconceptions. “Everyone who has developed an online course at the Carlson School will tell you that it takes far more time than a classroom one,” he says. “People think you are just taking a current course and creating a video, but it is not that simplistic if you are going to do it right.” Gutterman says instructors have to reimagine a learning environment different from those they have taught before.

Many things taken for granted in a classroom environment have to be thought through from a different perspective. “I do a lot of group exercises in the classroom,” he says. “While technology allows group exercises, you have to decide the extent you want students to find a common time to meet or whether there are alternative learning paradigms that will achieve the same learning objectives.”

Also, one might believe that once developed, an online course must be easier to teach. “That too is a fallacy,” Gutterman says. “The online environment has to allow students to ask questions and have conversations to replace those that regularly happen in the classroom.” So, everything from virtual office hours to electronic bulletin boards where questions are posed and discussed by both students and the instructor are needed.

“Online education still has the same demands on the students’ time and intellectual capacity. It is just being delivered in a different format.”

Since flexibility is a driver of online education, the content must match that demand. Most of the class material is broken into six- to 10-minute increments to better match student’s attention spans. “Online classes allow students to fit in the material over a week on their schedule rather than having to be at the University on a particular night for three hours,” he says. “And because of the small vignettes, they can also view parts of the class over lunch or on the bus or light rail if they wish.” Another positive Gutterman has heard from some students is the ability to go back and review videos, something not possible with a live lecture.

Gutterman stresses that all the MBT courses are quite rigorous. “This will not change one iota with online education,” he says. “Online education still has the same demands on the students’ time and intellectual capacity. It is just being delivered in a different format.”

Although flexibility is a major driver of computerized courses, it is not the only one. The biggest driver is technology—not just in the sense that online classes can be done, but that they are expected to be done. “Today’s students expect technology to make their lives easier and have both an affinity and ease to adapting and learning new technology,” Gutterman says.

Another driver, just as important, is a demand for work-life balance that carries over into professional education. “If we can make it easier to get the material delivered to students in a manner that affords them greater flexibility, then it is more likely they will take courses that will enhance their careers,” Gutterman says.


Student Input Shapes Design

Student input can also drive how an alternative educational experience is offered. Board of Overseers Professor Karen Donohue teaches Supply Chain in the Retail Sector, an online course for MBA students and a requirement for those in the supply chain management master’s program.

Students taking this course tend to be fairly experienced—they’ve spent an average of eight to 10 years in the workforce. “For online, they are really starving for interaction with others,” Donohue says. “You think of why you go to higher education—to learn from each other. Online can sometimes be an individual learning environment.”

What has been successful in this class is offering activities that forced the students to do a lot more group work. “We have case activities where teams are divided into different roles and work on a negotiation,” she says. In this instance the project is to come up with an intermodal transport facility with students representing entities such as the railroad or port authority. “They all have to be comfortable with the terms so they break into roles and Skype on how they have to work on this,” she says. “In thinking through different kinds of engagements, they get to know and learn from each other and wrestle with big and really contemporary ideas.”

Besides wanting more connection with their classmates, students also shown interest in being able to interact with some of the class’ guest speakers. “So far we’ve had some guests who recorded presentations. But the students felt it would be even better if they could come in and ask questions and pick their brains,” Donohue says, adding that she plans to set up three or four one-hour sessions on the day the speaker is recorded. The times will be open to all students wanting to take part in a Q and A with the guest. “I wouldn’t say this is a hybrid course, there are no requirements for face-to-face,” she says. “This is based on feedback from students who want to have touchpoints with these speakers and have a forum to have a more enriching dialog. It is more fun to watch a video of conversation back and forth rather than an interview with canned questions.”

In terms of online classes in general, Donohue finds them a nice option but they depend on what a student wants to get out of the experience. “A typical MBA experience should not be all online,” she says. “There are elements where you have to be in the classroom. You have to have people debate you. For a robust MBA, you need that face-to-face. Even the students we have online, they really like in-class stuff.”


Eight Weeks in Three Days

Another format that offers flexibility to students is a “condensed” class, such as Persuasion and Influence, taught by Marketing Professor Vlad Griskevicius. In a traditional class, students may meet for three hours a week for eight weeks. Reverse the numbers and you have a condensed class: eight hours a day for three days, such as three Fridays in a row. Students spend 24 hours in class in both versions, but the condensed class compresses the timeframe of the course. Course material remains essentially unchanged.

“The class is fundamentally similar regardless of format. But some of the projects or assignments need to be modified to fit the structure of the course.”

Persuasion and Influence is designed for part-time MBA students and Griskevicius has found the response to be very positive. “Demand has been huge, with my class filling up almost every time it is offered,” he says. “I also think that some students appreciate getting a few days off from work because they can use the Friday class as an excuse.”

Students also seem to cater to the novelty of the course. “Our Part-Time MBA students like to have a mix of class formats,” he says. “My sense is that a typical student does some traditional format classes, some online courses, and some condensed courses. This allows students more flexibility and gives them more options and variety.”

Griskevicius says there are several advantages to a condensed class. First and foremost, greater student focus and presence. “In a traditional class that meets many times over many weeks, there are bound to be lots of student absences,” he says, offering examples such as a job interview or someone needing to travel out of the area for a short time. “There is almost never a time when everyone is in class at the same time.” In his class, however, attendance is almost 100 percent for the three days. “I think this is wonderful for the class because it creates a better sense of community,” he says. “It also allows everyone to be focused and present for the entire time. This kind of physical and mental presence is rare in the modern world.”

The great efficiency of a condensed class, however, leads to its major disadvantage. “In traditional classes that last many weeks, students have more time to reflect on the material. There are many shorter class meetings and much time in between,” he says. “Some types of learning work best when they are stretched out over time. This kind of learning is more difficult in a condensed course because there is less time for prolonged reflection.”

A condensed class also makes prolonged group projects more challenging. “There simply isn’t enough time to have groups meet many times to do a project well,” Griskevicius says. “I find that the condensed class is more useful for several smaller projects rather than one big project.”


This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Carlson School Alumni Magazine. Read the full magazine.